Sto-Rox students for gay rights plan for Day of Silence

Teens brainstorm for April 11 event


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Sto-Rox High School students Samantha Baldauf and Sarah Pike have different ways of handling the jeers they get from other students for their sexual orientation.

Ms. Pike gets really quiet and sad. Ms. Baldauf, on the other hand, isn't bothered much by the taunts unless they're directed at one of her friends. Then she says something back, even though she knows she shouldn't.

"The comments they make can ruin someone's day," Ms. Baldauf said. "It affects your learning, for sure."

On April 11, Ms. Baldauf and Ms. Pike, who both said they are questioning their sexuality, will respond to insults in the same way -- with silence. They were among a few dozen Allegheny County high school students who met in the Pittsburgh Brashear High School library on Friday morning to prepare for the Day of Silence, a national event in which gay rights supporters take a 24-hour vow of silence to raise awareness of bullying. Most of the students were members of Gay-Straight Alliance groups in their schools.

Munching on bagels under a poster of Rosa Parks, the students spent three hours discussing strategy for getting support from teachers, principals and security guards for their silence. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, ran the workshop, supplying the students with cards to hand out to explain their silence and temporary tattoos that evoked excited gasps.

The students also performed exercises in which they pretended to explain the Day of Silence to bewildered teachers and to ward off attacks from students harassing them for their silence.

Some of the exercises were intense. In one of them, Ms. Baldauf pretended to be a student who wanted to put up posters advertising the event. Vanessa Davis, director of GLSEN's Pittsburgh chapter, played a skeptical principal.

"Tell me, as a principal who just said no to you, what Day of Silence is and why it matters to you," Ms. Davis said.

"It's an event to support a group that's hated on," Ms. Baldauf said.

"Why does it matter?" Ms. Davis said.

"It matters because it could save someone's life someday," Ms. Baldauf said.

Ms. Davis, other GLSEN workers and a handful of teachers helped the students hone techniques for winning over teachers and peers. They emphasized showing restraint toward those who don't support the Day of Silence and treating them with respect.

"Don't assume they're going to be negative," said Devin Browne, who teaches French and Russian at Brashear. "Assume they're going to be positive. That goes a long way."

The students split into groups to come up with ideas of their own for bolstering the event. One group suggested signing up participants in the cafeteria, recruiting art students to design posters and visiting health classes to raise awareness.

Participating in the Day of Silence can be difficult, the students said. Some of their peers are just curious why they won't say anything, while others pester them. But the event also gives them a feeling of solidarity and provides a nice break from their routine.

"It's rather soothing, actually, to sit back and know what people are saying and not responding," Ms. Baldauf said.

Mr. Browne, faculty adviser for the Gay-Straight Alliance at Brashear, said there's less name-calling at the school now than when he started working there three years ago.

Shortly after he arrived, Mr. Browne helped other teachers form the Gay-Straight Alliance, which has grown to a membership of 70 students in a school of about 1,500. Another thing that helped the school's gay community was having meetings with security guards and other administrators.

Now, same-sex couples seem to feel secure in the school.

"They're more comfortable walking hand-in-hand down the hallway," Mr. Browne said.


Richard Webner: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.

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